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COVID-19

No Microchips, No Metals, No DNA Damage: Reviewing How And Why The COVID-19 Vaccine Works

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Michael Minasi
/
KUT
A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine dose is prepared during a pop-up vaccine clinic at Cristo Rey Church on July 24. Ilya Finkelstein, an associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, says there's no safer medical intervention than a vaccine.

Public health officials, medical science experts and health care providers say the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Some people have. Some never will. And some still might — they just haven't done it yet.

For people in the latter category, and for vaccinated people trying to convince unvaccinated loved ones in that category to get the shot, straightforward and reliable information can help counter the rumors and misinformation that have proliferated since before the vaccines were even rolled out.

Ilya Finkelstein is an associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT-Austin and has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. He says there is no safer medical intervention than a vaccine and that he will make sure his children, ages 3 and 5, get vaccinated as soon as kids that young can.

Finkelstein says he understands skepticism toward the evolving body of information about the COVID-19 vaccine since "the public is watching science happening in real time and that means there will be conflicting information, and there will be changes in guidelines."

But the science behind the efficacy and safety of the vaccines is firm, he says, and their rapid development is supported by technologies that have been around for decades.

Finkelstein talked to KUT to respond to some of the common misinformation about the vaccines and address concerns people might have about how they work. Listen to the edited interview above or read the transcript of the extended interview below for a rundown of facts about the COVID-19 vaccines and corrections to some of the myths and rumors about them.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: Some people are concerned that these COVID-19 vaccines were developed very quickly. When was the technology for these vaccines developed?

Ilya Finkelstein: The core technologies for these vaccines, especially the RNA vaccines — the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — have really been in development for over 20 years. These technologies are platform technologies, which means they can be rapidly retooled for new pathogens and new vaccines. So the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine is really undergirded by decades of fundamental and applied work in RNA therapeutics. The same is true for Johnson & Johnson. It's also something that's been in trials previously for other pathogens. These are all technologies that have been around for a very long time and were rapidly retooled for the pandemic.

Can you explain briefly how the vaccines actually work? How does that protect us from serious illness or hospitalization or death?

The name of the game for all vaccines is to be able to train our immune systems to recognize a foreign agent, the pathogen, as quickly as possible before the virus has time to replicate and go wild and make your body make you sick. So the name of the game is to train your specialized cells — B cells, T cells — to have antibodies circulating that will protect you against this virus.

The vaccines that have emergency use authorization in the United States, notably Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, all do the same thing conceptually, although very different technologies. They present to our bodies one protein from the virus called the spike protein, and they present the specialized shape of this protein called a prefusion state. And this is the state that's critical for us to be able to train our antibodies to recognize. So all of these vaccines help our body to create antibodies and T cells, which help to recognize the virus when a real virus comes in.

You said all of the vaccines present our body with that one protein, the spike protein. But I know one concern people have, or some people have expressed about the COVID-19 vaccine, is that you can get COVID-19 from getting the vaccine. Explain the concerns around that and whether that is true or not.

That's absolutely impossible. These vaccines present one protein. The virus has many, many proteins. It has a genome. None of this is present to the vaccines. It's like saying you can be in a car accident if all you have is a tire in your backyard. It’s just not going to happen. There's no car there. It's just a tire. So this is one tiny piece of the virus. And in fact, these vaccines are injected. The protein is presented. And in a matter of weeks it's completely cleared from the system.

Are all three of the vaccines in use in the U.S. — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are all of them completely safe for people to get?

Hundreds of millions of people have been administered these vaccines. Vaccines have side effects. We've all seen the short-term side effects from some of these vaccines, most notably Moderna, which has the highest dose of the RNA. These may include body chills, fever in some cases, systemic joint pain, localized pain. These are all gone in a matter of a day or two.

There is some concern for blood clots with Johnson & Johnson. This is incredibly rare. Lots of studies have been done by the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention]. So in women aged 18 to 49, there's a seven in a million chance of having some sort of blood clot. Some of these blood clots could be dangerous. However, vaccines are perhaps in general the most safe medical intervention in the history of humanity. And these vaccines happen to be the safest among all of the vaccines out there.

That's a very strong statement.

There's no safer medical intervention than a vaccine.

Let's talk about the side effects for a minute, because especially early on when people were first getting vaccinated back in December and January, people were hearing from friends and family or seeing social media posts about people getting the vaccine and feeling really sick and having fever. What's going on in our bodies? Why do we have side effects? I think some people are frightened by the side effects and think that's a bad sign.

These are the side effects that last a day or two, not the blood clots that I just mentioned. These are somewhat common. That can include headaches, that can include body aches, chills as you mentioned, sometimes elevated temperature. This all means that your immune system is ramping up to recognize a pathogen, in this case, a pathogen that we introduce. Your immune system is ramping up. This is a good sign. Things are working correctly.

I'm no different. I had this happen to me when I had my second shot and that went away within a day or so. And that's also perfectly normal. This is not being sick. This is having your immune system ramped up. And that's part of the systemic response that you want. If you don't have side effects, that's also fine. Everybody's quite different in how they respond to the vaccines.

The lack of side effects is not a bad sign. That doesn't mean that the vaccine is not doing its thing.

That's correct. Everybody's different. Some have side effects. Others don't. But having the side effects is no sign that you're getting sick. That's biologically impossible.

You've gotten vaccinated against COVID-19, as have I.

I have small children age 3 and 5. Many ask, will I get them vaccinated when the vaccine is available? And the answer is absolutely yes.

Why do you say absolutely yes? You have no hesitation about that at all?

Absolutely none. Vaccines lower the risk for having adverse outcomes. And I'm not talking just about ending up on a ventilator, which is, of course, horrendous. Nobody wants that. But long COVID, etcetera, etcetera. There's quite a few long-term side effects that may come out of this. Yes, children tolerate COVID substantially better than adults. The mortality curves bear that out. Nonetheless, long term effects may be quite severe and very unpleasant. So vaccines help our immune systems recognize the virus quickly and help the body to reduce the chance of having such long-term effects.

 Is it safe for women who are pregnant to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The CDC has looked into this extensively. Absolutely. And remember, we're balancing risks from vaccine against risks from getting COVID. But right now, this delta variant is quite formidable. We're tracking it here in Texas. And ultimately, this is one of the most infectious respiratory viruses out there. This virus is no joke. It will spread. Having a vaccine will protect the mother and potentially the baby.

I want to take a few minutes here in our conversation to address some of the misinformation that is floating around about the COVID-19 vaccines. There's a lot of it. One of the pieces of misinformation is that the vaccine contains metal and so that if you get a COVID-19 vaccine, that metal is being injected into your body. You've probably heard people saying it makes them magnetic, which is absolutely not true. Talk a little bit about that piece of misinformation about the vaccine.

This misinformation may have two forms. Mercury contamination, that's one potential source of metal. This is not true. There is no mercury contamination. This is a very, very highly tested, quality controlled medical substance. So people test very carefully for mercury contamination.

Another tidbit of misinformation is aluminum contamination or alum. Sometimes this is used as an adjuvant. An adjuvant is a substance that's added along with the vaccine to boost the immune system's response. This is a minuscule dose. It's considered to be safe and has been repeatedly tested by multiple studies to be quite safe and effective. And it’s much, much lower than the dose that you already consume through food and through environmental exposure.

There are people who are convinced or who seem to believe that getting the COVID-19 vaccine injects some kind of microchip into one’s system. Can you address that?

My cellphone coverage has not improved.

There are also people who have raised concerns and objections about the vaccine based on information they believe to be true, that it was developed using fetal tissue in the research. Can you talk about that?

That's absolutely false. I don't understand even the kernel of the basis for that rumor.

The vaccine doesn't do harm to women's fertility, correct? There's no impact there.

There's absolutely no evidence that it has any impact on fertility for both men or women.

I should also mention that multiple studies have shown breastfeeding moms can pass the antibodies generated via vaccination to their infants. That's the only way those infants are going to get any kind of anti-COVID antibodies other than getting sick or SARS-CoV-2 the virus. Vaccinating yourself if you're breastfeeding, mom will actually provide some immunity for your breastfeeding child.

People hear about vaccines and they hear discussions about their development and how they work and the science can get confusing for people. And I think that may have come into play with this piece of misinformation that the vaccine somehow enters into our DNA and actually can change our DNA — can change our actual makeup. Can you address that one?

There was one non-peer reviewed manuscript that has now been debunked, which is the basis for this rumor. This is absolutely false. This was a non-peer reviewed study if you can call it a study. But mostly it was just very poor information presented in what sounded like scientific terms, which is frequently how these rumors get started. They borrow the language of science to present misconceptions and half-truths that have no bearing on reality but sound plausible because they're couched in scientific language.

 If someone has had COVID-19 in the past, do they still need to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

This is a really important point. People have looked at this time and time again, and if you look at the antibodies generated by vaccination versus having a natural infection, both generate antibodies. Natural infection generates a much more variable response from individual to individual, just like people go through COVID in very variable ways. Folks that are asymptomatic may have much lower antibody levels than folks that had severe symptoms.

But that is not to say that folks with severe symptoms are guaranteed immunity. So people who get vaccinated generally have very high immunity antibody levels. It's much less variable than the ones who have natural infection. And in fact, having a natural infection and getting vaccinated afterwards will boost your immunity to a very high level that is essentially “super immunity” beyond the level of those who have just had the vaccine and it is just off the charts protection.

So if anything, I would say those who have had COVID, consider that your first shot. And then you get your second shot and third shot that would be the Pfizer or Moderna regimen. That would give you super immunity. So I highly recommend those who have had COVID to get their vaccination regardless.

The public is watching science happening in real time and that means there will be conflicting information, and there will be changes in guidelines. And that's absolutely normal. In fact, you don't want scientists to stay dogmatic based on incomplete information. As more information rolls in, we're going to adjust. We're going to make improvements in the vaccine formulations, possibly; a new dosing regimen may come around, possibly. This is information that people should be paying attention to and expecting it to change as better studies emerge.

What would you say to people who, for whatever reason, have not gotten the COVID-19 vaccine yet? What would you like to say to them?

Vaccines are not perfect. They are one layer in a multilayer series of protections — the “Swiss cheese” model of protection. They provide a very strong layer of protection against getting severe COVID. Cloth or high quality KN95 masks provide a second, additional layer of protection. Together, these layers of protection will help reduce the chance of severe viral infection. And really, those are the best arrows in our quiver right now. None of the therapeutics are as good as not getting sick.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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